Hungary / France
2018 Balzan Prize for Chemical Ecology
Acceptance Speech – Rome, 23.11.2018 (Video + Text)
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am greatly honoured to be the recipient of the Balzan Prize in the field of chemical ecology. The Balzan Prize is a dream for scientists, comparable in prestige to the Nobel Prize. It reflects the personality of Eugenio Balzan, an exceptional person who stood for democratic values and freedom. Freedom is particularly important for scientists, since it is indispensable for creativity and for great discoveries in research. Nowadays, scientific freedom and the future of science are a cause for concern in many countries. I am firmly convinced that we as scientists have a collective responsibility to defend creative freedom in all research fields to ensure the future of science and mankind.
I was absolutely delighted to receive the message that I had been awarded the Balzan Prize. I was aware that the discoveries I made with my research group have probably had an extraordinary impact in the field of symbiosis and beyond, but standing here as a Balzan Prizewinner is a thrilling and stunning experience. After the first moments of joy and of feeling personally rewarded, there comes an even more gratifying revelation: the research opportunity which the Balzan Prize offers to me and to an international team of motivated and very talented young researchers.
My field of research is symbiotic nitrogen fixation, a fascinating example of chemical ecology with a wide range of chemical and peptide signals for consecutive communication between Rhizobium soil bacteria and legume plants. While this dialogue is one of the most exciting parts of symbiosis, symbiotic nitrogen fixation is crucial in providing nitrogen nutrition for legumes from airborne nitrogen. For their growth, all other plants need nitrogen fertilizers, which pollute the environment, the soil, the water and the air, and contribute to climate change and biodiversity loss. However, even maximal agricultural productivity with the most extreme use of nitrogen fertilizers will not satisfy the food demand of the growing human population on Earth. Therefore, a future solution could be to extend non-polluting symbiotic nitrogen fixation to non-legumes, and particularly to major crops. The scientific community has already been working on solutions, but there is still a long way ahead of us.
When I joined this research field in 1982, it was not known how bacteria and plants communicate with each other, or which bacterial genes are essential for the formation of the symbiotic plant organ, the root nodule. We felt great joy, success and satisfaction in our Hungarian laboratory when we first identified the Rhizobium nodulation genes which induce symbiosis with the host legume. Collective work by many laboratories all over the world later showed that these genes are involved in the biosynthesis of bacterial signals, the Nod factors by which the bacterium communicates with its host plant.
Our recent work, generously supported by the Hungarian Office for Research and Technology and subsequently by my Advanced Grant from the European Research Council, is focused on the fate of bacteria within plant cells. In legumes like alfalfa or peas, the bacteria within the plant cells undergo tremendous morphological and physiological changes. With my French and Hungarian teams, we have discovered that the differentiation process of bacteria is controlled by the plant. We identified hundreds of plant peptides in the symbiotic cells which, as signals, sensors or effectors, can initiate, modulate and progressively terminate the differentiation of bacteria. As we have discovered these peptides just recently, we only know the function of a few of them. While they are unique classes of peptides, they show structural similarities to antimicrobial peptides. Many of them indeed have strong antimicrobial activity in vitro and appear to be excellent candidates for novel antibiotics.
Thus the results we have obtained so far open up new avenues leading to unexplored territories not only in the fields of chemical ecology and molecular and developmental biology, but also in medical research. I look forward to using the second half of my generous prize from the Foundation to explore these challenges further with my Balzan research project.
I share this exceptional recognition not only with my co-workers, with many students, postdocs and visiting fellows, but especially with my late husband, Adam Kondorosi, an outstanding geneticist and worldwide leader in our field who left us too young, many years ago. Adam and Eva – we were a symbol for symbiosis, complementing each other in our life and scientific work. Only our daughter, Fanny would have loved another profession for us, so that we could have spent more time together. By now she understands what science meant for us and how much we loved her. I know that she is very proud of me.
Let me express again my sincere thanks to the General Prize Committee and to the Balzan Foundation for bestowing this great honour on me.